The Senate passed a veteran suicide prevention bill Wednesday that aims to expand vets' access to mental health programs outside the Department of Veterans Affairs and improve health care for troops transitioning out of the military.
Named for a Navy SEAL who died by suicide in 2018, the Cmdr. John Scott Hannon Veterans Health Care Improvement Act would require the VA to hire additional suicide prevention coordinators, give grants to organizations that focus on veterans' mental health and conduct several studies on vets' mental well-being and various approaches to suicide prevention.
The bill had been stalled in the Senate for more than a year, but it came to the floor quickly this week after a last-minute push before the chamber adjourns for its August recess.
"This bill will make necessary investments in suicide prevention. It will improve and support innovative research. It will make improvements and increase the availability of mental health care," said Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, when introducing the bill in the Senate on Wednesday night.
Hannon, a former leader of SEAL Team Two who also served on SEAL Team Six, was actively involved in helping other veterans with their war-related physical and mental trauma. He volunteered with the National Alliance for Mental Illness in Montana and helped develop a group therapy program with the VA and Montana Wild, working to rehabilitate injured birds of prey.
Hannon died Feb. 25, 2018, having been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress, bipolar disorder and a traumatic brain injury, according to Moran and Montana Sen. Jon Tester, the ranking Democrat on the Senate committee and champion of the proposal.
The measure passed by voice vote and may be considered by the House Veterans Affairs Committee in September when Congress reconvenes. But members of that committee also have their own ideas of what should be included to address veteran suicide, including measures to improve suicide prevention training among VA and non-VA health care providers, body cameras and de-escalation training for VA police, and an expansion of the VA's telemedicine programs to ensure that more rural veterans have access to services.
House Veterans Affairs Chairman Rep. Mark Takano said Wednesday that the cluster of suicide prevention bills "support the committee's [framework] to prevent veteran suicide by examining every angle, factor, and intersection that can lead to a veteran dying by suicide."
"From increasing access and delivery of care to identifying and supporting veterans at risk, the bills introduced in July offer evidence-based solutions to help veterans in crisis," Takano said.
After the Senate's passage of the Hannon bill, Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., ranking Republican on the House committee, urged his committee and the chamber to pass the legislation.
The portion of the bill on VA grants for community organizations honors one of Roe's constituents, Army Staff Sgt. Parker Fox, who died July 21 from suicide.
"While we cannot bring Parker and the thousands of other lives already lost back, we can solemnly honor them and all of our nation's veterans by delivering this bill to President Trump's desk without any further delay," Roe said.
According to the VA, more than 6,000 veterans die by suicide each year, or roughly 20 veterans a day. From 2005 to 2017, the number of suicides among veterans increased by 6.1%, despite massive efforts within the department and across the country to reverse the trend.
The focus on the issue in the House and the Senate would build on an effort introduced earlier this year by the Trump administration, the President's Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End a National Tragedy of Suicide, or PREVENTS.
That effort includes an increased emphasis on prevention training across professions, a public awareness campaign, community partnerships, and promotion of safe storage of firearms to prevent suicide.
According to the VA, firearms were the method of suicide in nearly 71% of suicides among male veterans and 43% of female suicides in 2017.
The Veterans Crisis Hotline is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at 800-273-8255, press 1. Services also are available online at www.veteranscrisisline.net or by text, 838255.